An account of working at a daycare center. How privatized childcare both changed and preserved gender roles, how childhood makes alienation normal- and what was the real structural function of all the damn creepy propaganda in the halls?
This past summer, I was a cook at a daycare center in the northeast US. Ultimately, it wasn't viable to stay, and I became homeless, quit, and relocated south, where I found a better housing situation. But for several months, I had the chance to observe the industry of reproductive and caring labor. Though I haven't yet studied the sector as much as I'd like to, which Marxist and anarchist feminists pioneered the understanding of, I'd like to contribute reflections on my own experiences earlier this year.
I'd show up in the morning, five days a week, to the small kitchen where I spent my shift mostly alone and unobserved by management or other workers. I was the only cook, and my job consisted of preparing highly processed, grossly unhealthy substances to be fed to the sixty-odd children enrolled. I'd clock out about five hours later, and would have left even sooner if I didn't stretch out the time with extended bathroom breaks and busywork on the occasions when a manager came back to the kitchen for a minute. The most time consuming work was dishwashing.
The kids were all dropped off before I got there, and some of them stayed after I was gone. But some parents would come back for their children during my shift, and I became familiar with their faces- the mother who wore the long, flowered headscarves, the off-duty cop who came in plainclothes but still always carried his gun.
The center was a franchise, part of a nation-wide chain. The daily workforce, consisting of two managers, a mix of teachers and floaters, and myself, was entirely female. I'm not sure of the composition of the cleaning and maintenance crew who didn't work the same hours as me, except that there was at least one male maintenance-person who came in once to fix some cabinets. I don't know if the applicants for our positions were mostly women, or if men also applied but weren't hired, but in any case, we were a cheaper workforce than a center full of men would be.
The teachers and floaters were tasked with calming the kids down enough to get them through a full curriculum while their parents were at work- the company prided itself on its emphasis on early-childhood teaching of math, reading and sign language. I'd love to learn sign language but I also wish that children could organize to resist incursions into what's usually been a pre-structured-education time in life, the way workers have often resisted capital's incursions into weekends and other leisure time.
The women I worked with varied widely in age and education level. I spent much of my shift alone in the kitchen, but they'd come in to get snacks or cleaning supplies, and I'd stay in their classrooms for a minute after bringing in lunch sometimes. Some of them were still living in their parents' homes, some talked about plans to specialize more in the teaching field and move beyond these low-wage jobs, about frustrations with partners they'd been hoping to move in with, about getting away from the east coat. Others were older and told me about grandchildren of their own, talked about retirement hopefully or nervously.
There wasn't all that much tension that I saw between my coworkers and the two managers. It was “corporate” that wrote rules and budgets, that set the limits that we all had to deal with. The franchise's managers made general hiring decisions, though they had to get their decisions approved by corporate, which set the wages.
The managers weren't strict about lateness or breaks, their situation wasn't all that different. They generally let the teachers and floaters decide when to combine their student groups into each other's classrooms, so they could work together to relieve fatigue or boredom.
My ability to relate to my coworkers was often curtailed by how they treated the kids. I understood that they were also tired and overworked- their normally eight-or-less hour shifts sometimes stretching out to ten or twelve when someone else needed to be covered or when they themselves needed the extra money. But the pleas of, “Why won't you be good? I know you can be,” and “Why can't they all be like her?” grated on me along with implicit gender-policing and boundary-fuckery, and overall the experience reminded me sharply of my own early reasons for radicalization.
The whole environment made me disgusted at what I was doing. The morning and afternoon snacks I served the children were typically empty carbs- cookies or crackers- and a juice concentrate cut with artificial fillers. Lunch itself was more filler carbs and animal proteins- burgers, macaroni and “cheese,” frozen pre-made scrambled eggs- with nominal produce on the side. The only fruits and vegetables ever served were from cans, which the kids usually didn't eat anyway. Somehow, this was all supposedly made “safe” by insuring that I wore rubber gloves at all times.
Anyone whose body was being flooded with such chemical-filled non-foods could be expected to be in a pretty bad mood, but I also question the idea that better nutrition will fix children's “mental health,” when the latter is defined as accepting a constantly-policed life in which one has the status of property.
The art projects in the hallways reminded me of this when I didn't tune them out. A wall of paper butterflies surrounded a sign reading, “After reading about the life cycle of butterflies, we had SO MUCH FUN making our own.”
A wall of thank-you notes to the staff read with a similarly forced tone. “Thank you for taking such good care of me even when I'm cranky,” said one, given away by the adult handwriting even if the thoughts weren't so obviously those of a parent, expressing feelings a young child truly can't have, while another said, “[name of a student] loves [name of center] because of all the loving and caring teachers.” In all the overinflated sentiment I heard an ever-present undertone of “or else.”
I saw this forced emotional performance again when some of my coworkers put on a fake cheerfulness that, as far as I could tell, benefited no one at all- punctuated with anger and accusations that children were being “manipulative” whenever they cried or asserted their own personhood as distinct in any way from this fiction. There were some women there who were more real with the kids, who I could relate to more, and became closer with though I didn't have the time to get to know them that well.
I understand some jobs demand this kind of affective labor- I've experienced it myself as a cashier and know it's commonly forced on lower-ranking healthcare workers- but no one was making my coworkers do this, or making them demand the same of the children. The managers were usually away in the front of the building, there was no other supervision and the fakeness never seemed to make the kids themselves any happier or more cooperative. Why was this all happening? In these notes, I tried to break down and better understand the context I was working in.
Parental Work Conditions
Parents send their pre-school-aged kids off for supervision and education, in- it is important to note- the only 'wealthy nation' besides Australia with no federal standards for paid parental leave. Most other wealthy nations give parents around a combined year of unpaid leave- or, six months for which both parents can take off. A combined two years is not uncommon. The average for combined paid leave- when employers have to keep giving both parents full wages- ranges from three months to a year.
In the US, federal laws protect parents from being fired for only 24 weeks combined, or three months if both parents are taking off. But it's all unpaid leave, so many families can't afford to use it. So, while around half of two-parent families take care of their young children themselves or through networks of relatives, over a quarter rely on daycare centers. Where I worked, the company's many corporate partners subsidize daycare at the chain. So, lots of the parents were workers at those companies who sent their kids there because their bosses payed part of the cost.
Gender And Reproductive Labor
Women are still burdened with more work within the family unit than men. In the waged work that takes place outside the family, we are paid less per hour and are less likely to be promoted to higher positions. This is the entrenched face of patriarchy, possibly the oldest form of alienation and class oppression in the world.
In feudalism, women were excluded from property inheritance and forced to depend on men. The Church killed women as witches to stop them from practicing medicine or wielding collective power. Men passed property on to their sons, while their wives were forced into fidelity to ensure an uncompromised line of male heirs.
When feudalism gave way to capitalism, countless people, dispossessed of their land and commons, were forced into precarious work in rapidly-expanding cities. One of the biggest changes was that lots of work that had previously been done within family units wound up being done outside, on mass-produced industrial scale. Women, at a worse position than men inside families, were also at a worse position to negotiate as workers with the new capitalist order.
The new “standard” family- actively encouraged by State policy when it found the working class in an unmanageable chaos- centered around a male and female wage-worker, the woman earning significantly less, or just a male wage-worker in the higher-paid stratum. In either case, women were burdened with more of the unwaged work inside the family, including childcare. And the waged work available to them tilted heavily towards the “caring” and “domestic” professions- teaching, cleaning, sewing, nursing.
Childhood In Class Society
Childhood is artificially extended to 18, by law and because you need to be a full-time student until then, to get decent social prospects in highly-developed nations. That's much different from the early period of dependency, when we're not yet developed enough to fend for ourselves, which can be outgrown much earlier.
Children have the basic status of parental property, but this arrangement depends on the parents, usually workers, training their children to grown into the same role of good subjects. If the state, regulating this relationship through schools and social agencies, finds that the parents don't fill this role- either giving children too much freedom, or being violent to the threshold that social struggle has forced the law to recognize as abuse- they can step in and declare the children wards of the state, making them directly state-controlled through foster agencies, rather than indirectly through families.
This version of childhood, the status we're all initially shaped by, is one of artificial dependency. It is both conditioning- normalizing the subservience we'll be expected to act out in adulthood- and something people inevitably rebel against. But because we're taught that this rebellion is itself a sign of “immaturity,” the stage when it's “natural” to be the most powerless, many of us shy away from attacking the institution directly, and spend our entire lives fighting to prove that it's not what we are anymore- wielding whatever banal power we get over others even as we're still not free ourselves. This is the trap that keeps the cycle going for the next generation.
When I was growing up, I wondered, confused, why childhood needed to be misrepresented so grossly by adults. Everyone my age hated going to school, but were we destined to wind up just like the adults around us- betraying our former selves, and becoming convinced that what made us suffer was the best thing for the next generation of kids?
I was more confused when, around age nine, I started reading more books meant for adults. I couldn't understand how the authors, when narrating from the viewpoint of a child, came to consistently skew the experience so badly. Didn't they remember that it was never like that?
I can understand it a bit more, now. Looking at my own writing from even just a few years back, I'm glad I took notes because otherwise, I would misremember how I was thinking back then. So, yes, it can be hard to recall what our past mental and emotional states were like. But there's something else going on here.
I have lately been thinking that policing childhood is one of the most central lynchpins of capitalism. I don't know if other class-war militants have studied and written about it from this perspective, if they have, I would welcome their words.
Beyond “All Against All”
Though the women's liberation movement made huge strides in advancing reproductive justice, we are still coming out of a long time of male ownership over female lives. We are still living with the cultural norms and inherited traumas of women being forced into reproduction.
When so many people have been born into this, as children created not by people who really wanted them, but by women who men demanded heirs from, it becomes part of the social bedrock for understanding our own personhood. Many more couples have decided to have children because they both felt it was expected of them, with neither party choosing parenthood with conscious intent.
And when people have more power to decide if they want children, they often still don't have the time or money to raise them. So, the kids are handed off to precarious workers. And we fall into this work along gendered lines, being expected to nurture children because it's “natural”- an excuse for the lower wages we inherit in the private sector, along with the baggage of emotional performance we're expected to carry over from the unwaged domestic sector.
The family structure, as integrated into class society, has worked so well because it's been a micro-version of larger hierarchies. It has its sanctioned violence, usually male, with women as involuntary caretakers, whose compensation was authority over children. So when women's liberation advanced, throwing off the chains of forced wife-and-motherhood, the reactionary backlash stirred up fears of social chaos, essentially resting on the line, “No one will take care of you.”
And when people have confronted dehumanizing means of raising children, they have often- as in the “attachment parenting” school of thought- fallen back on undertones of shaming women for not being more self-sacrificing.
[A brief edit: There is much that I see of value in the attachment parenting philosophy, but unless explicitly paired with a feminist intervention into gendered oppression, the fully-valid point of refocusing on children's neglected emotional needs can easily slip into calling on women to be more nurturing, accusing them of ruining childhood if they don't. Men should have equal responsibility in forming healthy relationships with kids under their care. And the fact that the ideals of attachment parenting are often impossible for low-income families to put into practice makes the issue more, not less, important-- as resistance movements should incorporate demands that make better home situations for more children more viable.]
It's true that we are mammals who need caretakers at the beginning of our lives, and throughout them- but the horrible idea is that without trapping and subjugating people, we would not have any. It's the old trap of people at the bottom of the pile being forced into conflict with each other. In both familial and privatized settings, the disempowered are paid in smiles from the even-more powerless. The unwanted subjects must be quiet, “good.” Angels, not people. Thus the talk of “love” all around when it's most distasteful and unrealistic. I don't have a full set of answers, but to fight against alienation is to fight for re-humanization. And I believe that in our daily practice as radicals, we can prefigure the relationships of a free society, where we have room to see each other as full people.
In writing this, I was inspired by the clarity of the following essays, which I would recommend to anyone wanting to learn more:
Witches, Midwives and Nurses
Women, The State and The Family
Caring: a labor of stolen time